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"The Nation That Destroys the Soil, Destroys Itself"

Ethanolics Anonymous

by DENNY HALDEMAN

Once again, we find our political leadership united around a very bad idea, ethanol and other biofuels to help gain "energy independence," to "help farmers" and most importantly, to help citizens avoid the harsh reality of peak oil converging with unsustainable lifestyles. It is understandable that the politicians must pander to the corn growing states in anticipation of election cycles. Politicians have always been prostitutes for votes. Even the most enlightened, progressive, and thoughtful of them have fallen prey to this cornographic behavior.

While some crops are superior to others and forest eating cellulostic ethanol technology scams are still in development, corn ethanol primacy is devouring the nation’s alternative energy focus. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being thrown into this unsustainable technology and we subsidize each gallon of auto alcohol to the tune of 51 cents per gallon. The ethanol fumes are leaving us drunk on delusion, ignoring the consequences and refusing to face the future when the oil dries up.

To grow enough corn for ethanol to replace our oil addiction would require approximately 482 million acres of cropland, exceeding the current total of 434 million acres of cropland used for all food and fiber. This does not even account for projected growth of oil consumption in the U.S. There is already the push to put the marginal Conservation Reserve Program lands, vital for wildlife and water quality and quantity, into intense energy crop production.

Old school ethical farmers in the corn belt are already lamenting the destruction of soil saving windbreaks, some planted during the CCC years, the plowing under of hayfields to corn, highly erodable hilly lands being put into corn, and water drainages being reduced, hearkening back to the depression era insanity that squandered so much vital topsoil. Cellulostic ethanol scams will fare even worse for the soils as "residues" are scooped up, leaving virtually nothing to feed back to the soil.


"The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the rush to burn our nation’s dwindling soil resources, corn is king. Corn devours soil nutrients at 12-20 times the rate of soil renewal, meaning it is already a highly unsustainable crop. Corn is also highly dependent on fossil fuel based fertilizer and pesticide inputs. With the inevitable hybridization and Genetically Modified Organism corn crops, the soil nutrient depletion will accelerate. The Corn Cartel, led by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto, have been working for decades on their plans for corn dominion over the U.S. and are now reaping record profits and subsidies.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, in addition to the land ethics meltdown, prime farmland prices have soared, rents have become prohibitive to all but the largest agribusiness operations, and again, the small farmers, the backbone, are being winnowed out like so much chaff. Seed, fuel and fertilizer costs are rising to meet the increased profit per bushel and farmers find themselves back on that familiar treadmill, the promise falling short as it always has.

In a land already plagued with poisoned groundwater, the incidence of atrazine and other poisons will only become more pervasive. Aquifers, already drained faster than recharge will only dry up faster in direct proportion to our ethanol consumption. It takes around 8,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol from corn and each gallon of it leaves eight gallons of toxic waste sludge. Even in the land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota is experiencing water shortages from the ethanol production explosion. With 99% of corn production under intensive fossil fuel nitrogen fertilization regimes, there is a directly proportionate resulting contamination of surface and groundwater and growth of the dead zones where our rivers drain.

Depending on if you believe the science of the Corn Growers Association or scientists from Cornell University, corn will produce slightly more energy than is required to turn it into ethanol or substantially less. Having monitored the bioenergy crowd for a decade, repeated inquiries into true sustainability have been met with deafening silence. There is no ethanol plant in operation that can plant, grow, harvest, transport, process, and transport it’s product on ethanol alone and still show a profit. It cannot be done given today’s economics.

Ethanol also contains only 70% of the energy of gasoline. Therefore, it takes much more ethanol to go a hundred miles than it takes gas, undermining the 10 cent price difference at the pump that seems like you are saving money and the earth. Ethanol blends also evaporate far more readily causing a toxic nauseous moment at the pump and increasing ozone pollution. With the EPA poised to adjust ozone pollution standards to actually protect people, and Chattanooga’s history of barely tolerable air, it is unconscionable for the ethanol bandwagon committee here to be falling for this scam.

Today, communities across the cornucopian landscape are fighting proposed ethanol plants on issues from water consumption, water quality, noxious fumes, noise, traffic safety, and other quality of life issues.

Meanwhile, back at the grocery store …

Do we feed cars or ourselves. To fuel the average American consumer’s driving habits would require 11 acres of cropland per year, the same cropland that could feed seven people for a year. Already we’ve seen tortilla riots in Mexico and other places where corn is a food staple and the 60% price increase is prohibitive for the least affluent amongst us.

Ethanol primacy is in direct competition for the dairy and animal industry. In the US, the USDA projects that the wholesale price of chicken will be 10% higher this year, the price of eggs up 21%, milk 14%, beef 6% and this is only the beginning. Other food crops like soybeans, wheat, barley are being plowed under to feed cars instead. Already in Germany there is a shortage of barley leading the good Germans to fear for the future of their beer. In Mexico, blue agave tequila plantations are being burned and plowed under for corn, leaving those in Margaritaville far less happy while on vacation. And again, the small farmers of the US and elsewhere will be washed out as agribusiness always wins like the other Casinos do.

After we do the inevitable Enron-style bailout of the ethanol scamsters, we will be left with soils so depleted of basic nutrients, that any subsequent food production will be lower in nutrients, adversely affecting human and animal health and well being.

Indonesian and Brazilian rainforests are falling for ethanol and bioenergy production, slavery is making a comeback, peasants are being driven further into the forests, paramilitary corn cartels are stealing land in Columbia, endangered species are on the run and unmindful consumers of the over-developed world keep on consuming with nary a thought.

The ethanol scam will only accelerate global warming. As forests are cleared, more carbon is released than could ever possibly be avoided by burning ethanol. The mere act of using ethanol as a panacea to keep consumption and the American Weigh alive and unwell, will keep consumers unmindful and uncaring. Politically, that is what this whole snake/corn oil boondoggle is all about. To paraphrase the Jack Nicholson line…"We can’t handle the truth..about corn, peak oil, unsustainable lifestyles and how we’re ripping off future generations." The switchgrass crowd, biodiesel crowd, and others intent on devouring soil and landscapes, might be somewhat less devastating, but the same problems will exist to the degree that the earth’s ability to support us declines and the other degrees continue to rise.

Now what …

If we poured trillions of dollars in subsidies to the oil and corn industries and untold resources into truly sustainable technologies, we could actually avert the worst case scenario of the end of oil and ensuing chaos and anarchy. Hard-Pour Cornography has us all cornfused for now, as our politicians and policies pander to the oil and corn cartels. Consumption based taxation on fuels, vastly improved mileage standards with current technology and technology in development, supporting improvements in solar, wind and storage technologies, car pooling, a conscientious and ethical public, combined with our ingenuity and technical prowess, we could develop truly sustainable options without a noticeable impact on our sacred standard of living like we’re the only creatures on the planet.

There is a reason that Toyota is now the biggest auto dealer in the US…innovation and mileage. The Chevy Volt is promising to get 150 mpg, mostly driven by electricity. Solar technology is on the verge of becoming competitive to the earth raping, subsidized technologies of ripping mountain tops off for coal, mining and leaving nuclear waste for 10,000 generations to deal with, and oil wars that kill and maim millions. Decentralized solar and wind could power virtually all of our current home and transportation needs. If we quit driving our food an average of 1,500 miles per bite and bought locally, lived within our means as communities and individuals, we might find an actual higher quality of life as we re-create communities based on our old values of taking care of the planet for future generations, living by the golden rule, and being tough enough to figure things out and do right. Just sit down by your car and take a swig of your favorite ethanol beverage, share a shot with your SUV, and ponder ways to avert disaster and the bad-mouthing of us by who is left of posterity.

DENNY HALDEMAN can be reached at: dennyh@bellsouth.net

This essay originally ran in the Chattanoogan.